Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969?

Pele’s spectacular career
is filled with logic-defying feats that are unlikely to ever be
repeated. No other player can boast three World Cup wins. Or 1000 goals
scored at the top level – although this fact is subject to endless
dispute and discussion.

Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969? 1

Nonetheless,
the Brazilian legend reached heights to which few of his peers, past or
present, could ever even aspire. But there is one particular
achievement that has persisted in popular myth for over 50 years and
still has so many football historians asking themselves: Did O Rei
actually help to bring peace to two warring nations?

This dramatic tale dates back to 1969 and one of Santos’ famous globe-trotting tours.

Pele,
Pepe, Coutinho and the rest of the club’s Santasticos dominated South
American football during the first half of the decade, winning five
straight Brazilian championships, two Copas Libertadores and two
Intercontinental Cups over European heavyweights Benfica and Milan in
that glittering period.

From 1966 onwards, however, continental and even domestic glory took a back-seat for the Peixe.

With
Pele as their star attraction, the club began pulling out of the
Libertadores in order to travel the world, embarking upon tours of the
United States (1966), sub-Saharan Africa, Italy and Germany (1967), and
Argentina (1968), where they participated in a pentagonal tournament in
Boca Juniors’ Bombonera that also included Benfica, River Plate and
Uruguay’s Nacional.

Almost nothing and nowhere was off-limits for Santos in their efforts to squeeze every cent out of their star-studded side.

One
European tour in 1959 took in 15 games in nine different countries in
just 22 days. According to Pele in Andres Campomar’s book Golazo!, the
following year was even more punishing.

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“I remember counting
that I had played 109 times for Santos alone in 1960,” he claimed.
“There was no break in the year’s football.”

Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969? 2

They
were aided and abetted by the Brazilian government, which in 1961
passed a bill declaring Pele a national treasure, forbidding his sale to
a foreign club, thus leaving him at the mercy of Santos’ gruelling
tours.

The beginning of 1969, then, saw the Peixe heading to
Africa with Pele in tow once more, even though the continent was in the
throes of bloody upheaval.

A brutal conflict had broken out
two years earlier between Nigeria and a secessionist state, Biafra, a
civil war based upon the wishes of the Igbo people to break away from
the central government dominated by the Hausa-Fulani group from the
north of the country.

Over two years of bitter, internecine
violence, an estimated two million civilians lost their lives and up to
4.5m were displaced from their homes, before Biafra was eventually
overrun and reintegrated into Nigeria.

Santos arrived right
in the middle of the war, ready to play a match in Lagos on January 26.
However, according to the legend, when Pele & Co. rolled into town,
the guns fell silent.

For 48 hours, Nigeria and Biafra held a
ceasefire, during which Santos drew 2-2 with the Super Eagles, with
Pele scoring both goals and receiving a standing ovation from the home
fans.

Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969? 3

However,
other accounts claim that the cessation of hostilities actually
occurred two weeks later in Benin City, on the border with Biafra.

Santos’
official website insists that the region’s military governor Samuel
Ogbemudia decreed a local holiday and opened up the bridge that
connected Benin with Biafra so that both sides of the divide could
witness Santos’ 2-1 victory over Nigeria in front of a crowd of 25,000
spectators.

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According to Pele’s team-mates Gilmar and
Coutinho, the ceasefire barely lasted for the duration of the game; as
the side’s plane took off, they could hear from inside the craft the
sound of gunshots that marked the resumption of conflict.

“Having
stopped a war was one more point in our favour to show our supremacy,”
fellow Peixe legend Lima recalled to Gazeta Esportiva.

“We
could have easily turned around and said, ‘War is all around us – why
would we enter that mess?’ But we didn’t. We wanted to do it and we
said: ‘We are not obliged to play, but we want to and we are going to do
this.’”

The story reached Time in 2005, with an article
from the famous magazine claiming that “Although diplomats and
emissaries had tried in vain for two years to stop the fighting in what
was then Africa’s bloodiest civil war, the 1969 arrival in Nigeria of
Brazilian soccer legend Pele brought a three-day ceasefire.”

Thanks
to the efforts of Nigerian blogger Oloajo Aiyegbayo, however, new
doubts have arisen over the truth behind Pele’s peace-making efforts.

Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969? 4

Aiyegbayo
trawled contemporary newspaper accounts of the period and found no
mention of a ceasefire covering the period of Santos’ stay in Nigeria.

The
Benin City bridge may have been opened, but this was standard practice
on match-days and not a measure designed to allow Biafrans into the
stadium during a time when tensions were running extremely high due to a
series of recent atrocities.

Pele himself has given mixed
recollections of the event, stating in his autobiography only that “the
Nigerians certainly made sure the Biafrans wouldn’t invade Lagos while
we were there.”

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In subsequent interviews, however, O Rei has accepted the more romantic retelling of the story as fact.

Fifty
years after Santos’ hectic, interminable tours, it is perhaps only
natural that the former forward’s memories of specific matches and
countries might be less than impeccable. It is even possible that the
ceasefire in question belongs to a different country and year
altogether.

In 1967, the Brazilians had also found
themselves in a war-torn corner of Africa, playing in both the capital
of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, and in Libreville,
Gabon.

Did Pele And Santos Really Stop A War In Nigeria In 1969? 5

In
2012, Pele returned to Gabon and regaled his audience with the part he
played in halting a civil that was ravaging the country. “They told us
we couldn’t go, there was a war on and we were crazy,” he explained.

“We
played here [in Libreville] and also in Kinshasa, the father of [Gabon
president Ali Bongo] was president then and he said: ‘We have to stop
the war because we are all going to watch Pele. They stopped, we played
and we left, it was fantastic. I cannot forget it.’”

Half a
century after the facts, we may never fully know the truth behind
Santos’ famous tours: whether they were humanitarian missions as well as
money-making exercises.

Or if the stories of stopped wars
and peace-making are later inventions aimed at justifying what appears
to our modern eyes to have been outrageous exploitation of young,
talented footballers.

As with those 1000 goals – most of
them unseen and shrouded in the darkness of an age where coverage and
was sporadic at best – it’s really up to the reader to decide what to
believe.